Iliad, Book VIII, lines 245–53, Greek manuscript, late 5th, early 6th centuries AD.

For several years, I’ve made it one of my missions to read “old books”, meaning all those classics I’d read about and heard about, and maybe even read excerpts from when I was in school. My main criterion for these “old books” was that in order to count, they had to be REALLY old: as in 100 years or more.

After reading several titles over the years, I now know that this is a bit of a hit and miss thing: some old classics are very dated and difficult to connect to because of the “language-style barrier”, especially if you run across a bad translation. (For example, it turns out I really do not like “Don Quixote”.)

Others are amazingly easy to love, and feel like they could have been written today (or at least within the last few decades). Here are eight of my absolute favourites that I think are well-worth reading today:

1. Candide by Voltaire

This book is hilarious, rather raunchy, and at the same time a cutting satire that skewers ignorance, religious fanatics, and a whole lot of other things that are still around in society today. Yes, it’s Voltaire, but even though he was French and is dead (it happens to the best of us), his writings are highly entertaining.

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2 & 3. The Iliad & The Odyssey by Homer

One of the first franchises in storytelling? Maybe. You can read one without reading the other, but the Iliad is really a kind of prequel to The Odyssey, even though it is quite different in tone and style. If you’re into that sort of thing, there’s a lot of literary and scientific debate on how and why the two stories differ, but I think they’re both fantastic reads.

The Iliad has a broader scope, and feels less “personal” than the Odyssey, which is a much more “modern” and immediately gripping kind of story. However, The Iliad is almost mesmerizing in the way that it gives you an inside look at how people thought and felt in ancient Greece more than two thousand years ago. And there are few modern books (or movies) that can match The Iliad’s ultra-realistic depictions of violence and death – if someone were to actually film this story the way it is written, it would certainly get an R-rating.

Both of these stories are terrific as stories, and what is most astonishing to me, is that the way they’re told (as in the storytelling techniques used: flashbacks for example) is so amazingly accomplished. (More about the ultra-violence of The Iliad here.) 

4. The Count Of Monte Cristo, by Dumas

This is the best revenge story ever told, in my opinion. Dumas’ story of how the good, young sailor Dantes falls into despair and madness after being brutally and viciously betrayed,  and how he then takes his revenge and ultimately realizes that he has wasted his life on that revenge, is quite simply brilliant. As a reader, no matter how many times I read this book, I always feel agony as Dantes is put in jail, and every time I wish that the story could end otherwise… but then it wouldn’t be this book, of course. Don’t watch the movie versions of this: none of them do the story justice.

5. One thousand and one nights

I love reading mythology and fairy-tales (as in the REAL fairy-tales that were told before Disney cleaned them up), and the stories in One Thousand and One Nights are real fairy-tales. There’s lust, love, evil, good, monsters, brutality and treasure. Like The Odyssey and The Iliad, the stories also give you an amazing inside view of a time and a society that many of us don’t know a lot about. The tales are influenced by Arabic folktales, Mesopotamian myths, as well as Persian, Indian and even Egyptian stories. Reading the original versions of Aladdin and Sinbad, you realize how much was lost when they were turned into children’s movies.

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6. Alice In Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll

This children’s book is so weird and wonderful and so strangely un-sweetened, that it’s a bit of a shock to read it, if you remember it mostly from Disney’s version, or the other modernized and kiddified re-tellings. Read the original. It’s seriously trippy.

7. Gilgamesh

This ancient story from Mesopotamia is another ancient tale that, like The Odyssey, feels rather familiar and modern in many ways. The setting is foreign and strange, but the story about a king who wants to live forever and the journey he goes on, is the same setup storytellers still use in movies and books today. Reading it here, makes you realize that a) humans have loved stories for as long as we have been humans, and b) storytelling basics have remained largely the same over thousands of years.

8. Beowulf

J.R.R. Tolkien was hugely inspired and influenced by this old-English epic poem, and it’s easy to see why. This is a classic fantasy story about a hero, and a monster, a quest, and then a dragon. Find a good modern translation (Seamus Heaney’s for example) and just enjoy reading a fantastic story that allows you to peek inside the minds of people who lived so long ago.

This post was originally posted at my personal blog Kids. Food. Life.